Category: Creativity

Here’s what the evidence shows about the links between creativity and depression

By Alex Fradera

There’s a stereotype that mental distress is an almost inevitable part of being highly creative. But is there any substance to this idea, or have we been misled – by biographers drawn to artists with colourful and chaotic lives, and the conceits of cultural movements like the romantics?

Scientific attempts to resolve this question, which have mainly focused on disorders of mood, have so far struggled to reach a definitive answer. However, in a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Christa Taylor of Albany State University has applied surgical precision to open up the existing body of research and lay out what we currently know.

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The four ways to promote creativity in children come more naturally to some mothers than others

GettyImages-542092344.jpgBy Alex Fradera

What kind of parents produce creative children? Aside from the clear and substantial influence of the genes they pass on, evidence suggests that parents can also influence their children’s creativity through providing encouragement and the right environment. To understand what kind of parents are more inclined to take these steps, a new study in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity investigates the links between mothers’ personality and how much they cultivate for their child a ”climate of creativity”.

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Let’s dial down the hype about grit – new paper finds no association with creative achievement

Duckworth’s book is a best-seller

By Alex Fradera

In 2007, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth authored a paper on a trait she called “grit” which went on to arrest the attention of anyone interested in the secrets of success. TED talks and a 2016 book followed, wherein Duckworth explained how a combination of passion for a topic, and perseverance in the face of difficulties – the two facets of grit – were the recipe for achievement, a claim borne out by studies within schools and across the lifespan.

In recent years, however, researchers have become more critical of the scope and relevance of the concept. Now an article published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, suggests grit gives surprisingly little insight into the world of creative success.

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Can you will yourself to be more creative?

giphyBy Alex Fradera

Surely creativity is about freedom. Dropping your inhibitions – maybe with the help of a few substances – and letting ideas writhe free from the unconscious unfiltered. What to make then of the research showing that creativity is associated with higher levels of executive functioning – the mind’s suite of control processes – which seem to help by inhibiting irrelevant information and combining the rest in novel ways? Does it mean you can use this mental control to make yourself perform more creatively? According to a new study in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts involving jazz pianists the answer may depend in part on your creative experience.

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Only children more creative, less agreeable and it’s reflected in their brain structure

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 13.08.36
Image from Yang et al, 2017

By Christian Jarrett

There are some common-sense reasons for thinking that being raised without siblings will have meaningful psychological consequences – after all, “only children” are likely to get more attention from their parents than kids with sibs, but at the same time they miss out on the social experience that comes from sharing, playing and competing with brothers or sisters.

The latest study to look into this, published recently in Brain Imaging and Behavior, comes from China where the government’s one-child family planning programme has led to a huge increase in the numbers of only children. Junyi Yang and his colleagues scanned the brains of hundreds university students, about half of whom were only children and also tested their personality, creativity and intelligence. The only children outperformed the participants with siblings on creativity, but they scored lower on trait agreeableness – psychological differences that appeared to coincide with relevant structural differences in their brains.

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Is creativity something you inherit from your parents?

6930271257_36904725a1_bBy Alex Fradera

Jeb Bush’s failure to secure a Presidential triple-play is memorable perhaps because it’s an exception to a familiar routine: the family dynasty. It’s a routine especially common in the arts, where a writer’s family tree is apt to contain a couple of actors, a director, and maybe a flower arranger to boot. This might simply reflect upbringing – or maybe the powers of nepotism – but creative success also owes to temperament and talents, some of which may have their origins in our genetic makeup. The journal Behavioural Genetics has recently published a heritability study that explores how deeply a creative vocation sits in our DNA.

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Psychologists have devised a test for measuring one-year-olds’ creativity

A team of psychologists in England say they’ve developed a reliable way to measure divergent thinking in one-year-old infants. Divergent thinking is a form of creativity that involves uncovering new ideas or ways of doing things. The finding published in Child Development opens up the possibility of exploring the early factors that lead one infant to be more creative than another, and potentially intervening to help foster creativity extremely early in a child’s life.

Elena Hoicka and her colleagues filmed 29 toddlers (average age of 19 months) as they played freely on their own with a specially designed box that was paired for 90 seconds at a time with one of five unusual objects, including a wire egg cup and a plastic hook.

Later, researchers watched back the videos and counted how many unique actions each child performed with each object. To be counted as a new action, the child had to do something different with the object, or perform the same action with the object but on a different part of the box. The box featured various compartments, steps, shelves, holes and strings, offering a multitude of ways to play. The greater the number of different actions that the toddlers performed with the objects and box, the higher the divergent thinking score they received.

The researchers found that there was a wide spread of scores on the test showing its ability to differentiate between children. What’s more, when the same toddlers performed the test two weeks’ later, they tended to achieve very similar scores second time around. In psychological jargon, this is a sign of “test/re-test reliability”, which suggests the test is measuring a persistent trait of divergent thinking, rather than the influence of momentary factors such as mood or fatigue. Also, most toddler actions performed during the second test were new, so it wasn’t just that higher scoring toddlers were remembering their actions from the first session.

Another aspect of the study was that the researchers asked each toddler’s mother or father to complete an adult test of divergent thinking that involved completing partially drawn images in imaginative ways. The parents’ creativity scores showed a moderate to high correlation with their toddlers’ scores. This could be because creativity is partly inherited through genes, or it could be due to toddlers learning from their parents’ creativity. Another intriguing possibility raised by the researchers is that creative toddlers may influence their parents’ creativity. “It is possible,” they write,” that if a parent has a child who tends to explore, parents may be influenced by this and also explore more”.


Hoicka, E., Mowat, R., Kirkwood, J., Kerr, T., Carberry, M., & Bijvoet-van den Berg, S. (2016). One-Year-Olds Think Creatively, Just Like Their Parents Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12531

further reading
Cultivating little scientists from the age of two
The jokes that toddlers make
Pre-schoolers can tell abstract expressionist art from similar works by children and animals

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Is this why the research on creativity and mental illness is so contradictory?

From Van Gogh to Poe, history is littered with famous cases of creative geniuses plagued by inner turmoil. But going beyond the anecdotal, are creative people really more prone to mental health difficulties?

Past studies have led to conflicting results – for every one that uncovered a link, another has come along with the opposite result. In a new paper in Psychological Bulletin, a Netherlands-based team led by Matthijs Baas takes us through a tour of this earlier work and they propose a brain-based explanation for why the results are so messy.

Baas’s team begin with findings from earlier meta-analyses – studies that pool data from prior research. These reviews show that “positive schizotypic symptoms” such as impulsivity, hallucinations and superstitious beliefs are more common among creative people, but “negative schizotypic symptoms” – such as cognitive disorganisation and forms of anhedonia, a reduced capacity to enjoy pleasure – are actually less common.

Baas and his colleagues suggest this is because of the relationship between positive and negative schizotypic symptoms and our brain’s two basic motivational systems – the approach system and the avoidance system. The approach system is creativity friendly, as the neurotransmitter dopamine encourages exploration and the pursuit of rewarding stimuli. It is linked to high mood, exploration, and even to difficulties inhibiting ‘irrelevant experience’ – not unlike positive schizotypy. Meanwhile, the serotonin-charged avoidance system deals with threat, and leads to reduced flexibility and focused rather than open information processing – which links with the low mood and disrupted attention that characterises negative schizotypy. So this taxonomy makes sense of the different results: approach system symptoms are more frequent in creative people who have more dominant approach systems, whereas avoidance-related symptoms are less frequent. Supporting this, another avoidance-like condition – trait anxiety – has been shown to be slightly less common among more creative people.

Baas’s team wanted to see if this pattern generalises beyond schizophrenia-related symptoms to the approach-like condition of bipolar disorder and to depression – avoidance’s black dog. They gathered nearly 2000 scholarly citations that referenced creativity and these two conditions, and then shaved them down to 39 depression studies, 28 bipolar, mostly peer reviewed work, together with some theses and unpublished work. Note, these studies dealt with non-clinical instances – so depressive mood or manic tendencies, rather than formal diagnoses.

The relationship between bipolar tendencies and creativity was clear and positive (an overall correlation of .224 where 1 would be a perfect match). This correlation was strongest when considering self-report studies, rather than those that actually tested creativity; this suggests an association between bipolar and an inflated sense of creativity. But still, a significant correlation remained when stripping out the self-report.

Meanwhile, depression showed the expected negative relationship with creativity. However, this association it was very small (the correlation was -.064). The previous findings with negative schizotypy were also small which could suggest that the avoidance system is only a minor impediment to creativity, or that the picture is more complicated. Supporting the latter position, the data suggest that the relationship is stronger in certain social groups – non artists – and in older adults.

We should note that the data discussed in this new study is all from healthy people whose symptoms were not serious enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis. There may be different factors at work among creative people who have more serious mental health problems, as was the case for Van Gogh and Poe. One possibility here is that being highly creative is a risk factor for mental health because it pits people against rigid societal boundaries. Another may be that atypical experiences – such as committal to a mental institution – may kindle different ways of looking at the world. But this study suggests that sitting underneath these complex dynamics are deeply grounded tendencies: to follow our flights of fancy or stay close to home.


Baas, M., Nijstad, B., Boot, N., & De Dreu, C. (2016). Mad Genius Revisited: Vulnerability to Psychopathology, Biobehavioral Approach-Avoidance, and Creativity. Psychological Bulletin DOI: 10.1037/bul0000049

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Teams are more creative when their leader is confident in her or his own creativity

If you’re wondering who to appoint to run a team with creative goals, you might favour a non-creative, reasoning that it’s down to the team members to generate creativity, with the person at the top acting more as driver and dogged coordinator. However, new research in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes suggests that teams produce more creative outcomes when their managers have greater confidence in their own creativity.

Lei Huang of Auburn University and his collaborators surveyed 106 team leaders in a large tech company based in the US, canvassing their creative self-efficacy (CSE): their belief in their own ability to complete creative goals, as measured through survey items like “I have confidence in my ability to solve problems creatively.”

The researchers also surveyed team members, 544 in all, who had spent an average of four years in the company. They said they were more willing to focus on creative activities – “I spend considerable time sifting through information that helps to generate new ideas” – when they were led by an individual who had scored higher in CSE; they also rated high CSE leaders as being more encouraging of creativity. These effects were amplified when team members felt they had better relationships with their manager. Did team members with creatively confident leaders actually deliver more creative work? Yes, at least according to the team leaders: those who scored higher on CSE were more likely to report that their teams were a “good source of creative ideas”.

To sum up, modelling of the data showed that creatively confident leaders had teams more invested in creative activities, that saw the leadership as encouraging creativity (all the more when relationships were strong), and that produced more creative work overall. Now, you could imagine the opposite to be the case: that creative leaders pursue their own creative ideas to the cost of supporting their followers, and are reluctant to view what their followers produce as creative, due to their own higher bar for what counts as such. No doubt such cases exist. But this study suggests that in normal functioning leadership contexts, managers recognise that the route for delivering the kind of work they care about is through their followers, so if they want creative results, they have to facilitate it, not produce it personally. In addition, people higher in CSE are known to be less conformist and receptive to ideas; they get creative behaviours.

One weakness of this study is that the measure of team creative performance was subjective, and moreover, rated by the leaders themselves. It could be that creative-minded leaders are more ready to see the creativity in team members. So Huang’s team recommend future work with objective ratings or via ratings by other coworkers.

Creative self-efficacy is likely not the only trait that disposes leaders to encourage creativity, but it is one of the few so far explicitly identified by research. And the good news is self-efficacy can be developed. So organisations may want to look at how to foster their leaders’ confidence in their own creative skills: this will boost their motivation to generate new approaches, and help them recognise that the risks and occasional failures along the way are worthwhile.


Huang, L., Krasikova, D., & Liu, D. (2016). I can do it, so can you: The role of leader creative self-efficacy in facilitating follower creativity Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 132, 49-62 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2015.12.002

further reading
Mixing your teams up is key to group creativity
Why it’s so important that team members believe they’re on the same page
Jokey team meetings are more productive, as long as people laugh along
Reverse psychology: How bad managers inspire team camaraderie

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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People low in agreeableness ("jerks") are particularly adept at selling their creative ideas

“The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him,” designer Jonathan Ive on his boss, the late Steve Jobs. (via WIRED).

Tales of Steve Jobs’ “jerkiness” are legendary. Other iconic creative visionaries have similarly been known for their “difficult” personalities, from Sopranos creator David Chase to Thomas Edison. Anecdotally then, it seems like having what psychologists might call a “disagreeable personality” (i.e. scoring low on the “agreeableness dimension” of the Big Five Factor theory of personality) ought to help people be more creative.

Yet research to date has largely neglected this possibility and focused much more on the positive associations between creativity and another Big Five personality trait – openness to experience. In their new paper in the Journal of Business Psychology, Samuel Hunter and Lily Cushenberry suggest this oversight is due to the fact that psychologists have been preoccupied with studying idea generation. However, creativity is a social endeavour – if you want people to embrace your novel ideas, rather than brush them to one side, you need to be willing to put your ideas on the line in the first place, weather any negative feedback, and then have the strength of character to convince people why your ideas have merit. For these sharing and promotional aspects of creativity, Hunter and Cushenberry reasoned having a disagreeable personality may well be advantageous.

Just over 200 uni students first worked alone for ten minutes, typing out ideas for a marketing campaign for the online campus of their university. Then they formed groups of three and worked for 20 minutes as a group on a joint marketing plan. The students also all completed measures of their personality and their ability to come up with unusual uses for everyday objects (a basic test of idea generation).

A student’s level of disagreeableness on the personality measure (a high score on disagreeableness indicates a more “argumentative, egotistical, aggressive, headstrong and hostile” personality, the researchers said) was not related to their ability to come up with useful and original marketing ideas on their own (or their performance on the unusual uses test), but was related to how much their ideas tended to be taken up by their group. Moreover, this was especially the case when the group itself was made up of more disagreeable personalities. Stated colloquially, being a jerk isn’t advantageous for coming up with useful, original ideas, but it does seem to be advantageous for getting your ideas heard, especially in an environment consisting of pushy characters.

A second study largely backed this up, and showed again the importance of social context. Nearly three hundred students first spent time working alone coming up with ideas for a gift for their university campus (that would impress visitors). Next they shared their ideas with two other students who would subsequently form their group. In reality, these individuals were assistants working for the researchers and they gave either deliberately supportive or negative feedback to each participant (and to each other).

In the final stage, the participants worked with their two team members to come up with ideas for “a dorm room of the future” and here the supposed team members deliberately came up with either creative or boring suggestions to further simulate different working conditions. This research showed that having a disagreeable personality wasn’t associated with the students’ ability to come up with original ideas on their own, but was related to their being willing to share original ideas in a group context, especially when that context was harsh (with negative feedback flying around), and in a culture where other team members were coming up with quality ideas of their own.

There’s always a question mark over how much lab research like this, involving students, is likely to translate to the real world. Also, the observed benefits of disagreeableness were seen here over a very short space of time – it remains to be seen whether they would persist over weeks, months or years of working together. Nonetheless, the researchers said their findings suggest that being a ‘jerk’ may not be directly linked to who generates original ideas, “but such qualities may be useful if the situation dictates that a bit of a fight is needed to get those original ideas heard and utilised by others.”


Hunter, S., & Cushenbery, L. (2014). Is Being a Jerk Necessary for Originality? Examining the Role of Disagreeableness in the Sharing and Utilization of Original Ideas Journal of Business and Psychology, 30 (4), 621-639 DOI: 10.1007/s10869-014-9386-1

further reading
For group creativity, two narcissists are better than one

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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